Mom of 5 shares tips for creating whole food-based family meals on a budget

Making healthy family meals on a budget doesn't have to be hard. Autumn Michaelis, the mom of five behind Whole food for 7, shares tips for making a change. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Making healthy family meals on a budget doesn't have to be hard. Autumn Michaelis, the mom of five behind Whole food for 7, shares tips for making a change. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Autumn Michaelis gets it. She's a mom of five boys who knows it's a challenge to cook healthy meals the whole family enjoys. But Michaelis says it's possible to create healthy whole food-based family meals on a budget ... and it's also worth it.

Michaelis' new cookbook, Whole Food For Your Whole Family: 100+ Simple, Budget-Friendly Meals, released last month. Not only are the easy recipes quick, budget-friendly and kid-approved, they're also free of gluten, dairy and refined sugar. And, the cookbook has tips for dealing with picky eaters, as well as an entire section dedicated to whole food-based lunch-box ideas.

"This is the cookbook I wish I had five years ago," says Michaelis, who runs the blog and Instagram account Whole Food For 7. "This is for people who want to make changes for their family, but don't know where to start."

This wasn't always the way Michaelis and her family ate. For years the family meals looked a lot like what most Americans eat — tons of packaged foods that contain added sugar. "We were in that struggle trying to get food on the table and feed a large family," says Michaelis, a California resident with a degree in exercise physiology. But in 2013, Michaelis and her husband changed their diets to include healthier, cleaner foods and, eventually, her five boys took notice.

"My kids started seeing my example and asking questions," she recalls. "'Why do you not eat this way? Why is what's on my plate different than what's on your plate?' I knew my kids deserved better."

Michaelis admits the change can feel overwhelming. "My boys had a very narrow palate and I probably empowered it, unfortunately, so I get the idea of, 'How can I change the way my family eats when my kids barely eat these mainstream foods?'" Michaelis says.

Just do it

Where do I start? How do I maintain it? How do I not become a slave to the kitchen? For years Michaelis struggled with these questions and kept putting off making the change. "I kept saying, 'We'll do it when school gets out. No, we'll do it when we're done traveling. No, we'll do it when they're back in school,'" she says. "I finally decided there's just not going to be the right time."

Once the decision is made, stick with it — something Michaelis admits isn't easy.

"The hardest thing about being a parent is being consistent," she says. "We often start with really great intentions and get worn out, but kids will surprise you with their flexibility."

Involve kids in the planning

Have a family meeting and involve your children in the process to prevent them from thinking the change is something that's being forced upon them. "I told my kids, 'This has helped me with acne and sleep,' and all these other things that I knew they could relate to," says Michaelis, whose boys range in age from 10 to 18.

She also worked with her family to establish a trial timeline for the new eating habits. They agreed to give it 30 days. "Part of the 30 day parameter was me giving myself an out, because I didn't know if I could keep up with it," Michaelis admits.

Next, the whole family looked at cookbooks and scrolled through Pinterest, picking out recipes and foods they would eat or wanted to try. Michaelis says this helped her boys realize this wasn't something mom was making them do, but rather was something they were doing as a family.

To everyone's surprise, the options were plentiful. "They were used to lunches of peanut butter and jelly — really straight-forward stuff," Michaelis says. "One of my sons said to me, 'Mom, I've never had so many options."

She says this is a driving force behind her cookbook: She wants families to have plenty of choices to pick from, so the cookbook includes everything from garlic steak bites to pineapple whip.

Michaelis says the 30-day trial period for her family came and went without anyone noticing. It was around day 40 when she stopped to reevaluate things. "I was shocked. Nobody was complaining," she says. "We have these fears in our head as parents — if I do this they are going to be kicking and screaming and it's going to be awful, and surprisingly that wasn't the case."

Meal prep is key

Michaelis was determined to find a way to make her family's eating style sustainable to prevent burning herself out. She tried spending an entire day in the kitchen meal-prepping for the week, but that exhausted her and made her grumpy because she was missing out on family time.

Instead, she uses a method she calls "make something extra."

"Anytime I'm in the kitchen, I double or triple what I'm making and freeze half of it for another night when we're running out the door trying to get to soccer, school activities or whatever," Michaelis says. "I really maximize the time I'm in the kitchen, and that has allowed me to stay ahead of the process."

She purposely made sure most of her recipes are freezer friendly, and says a game-changer is finding a meal-planning system that works. For Michaelis that means every Saturday morning she writes out the meals she'll make that week, checks her pantry and goes shopping.

"Having a plan takes so much less energy in the end because it's not an everyday struggle of what should I make? What do we have the ingredients for," she says.

It can be done on a budget

"The misconception is to eat healthy whole food you have to break the bank and it's going to take your whole paycheck," says Michaelis. "I'm here to advocate that's not the case. I buy the majority of my food from Walmart."

Because much of food is wasted simply because it goes bad or is forgotten about, Michaelis suggests checking the fridge before heading to the store. That way, you'll be reminded of that bunch of cilantro stashed in the produce drawer that needs to be used.

Michaelis' family also has leftover night once a week: She cooks four or five nights, and then every Saturday, the family pulls the leftovers out and everyone gets what they want. "That way we know there's no food that got pushed to the back of the fridge that's going bad," she says, "and whatever we don't eat, we freeze."

Notice the changes

After her family's initial trial period Michaelis polled her children individually, so they wouldn't be influenced by their siblings. They were all pleasantly surprised by the changes.

"I heard everything from, 'Mom, my skin looks amazing,' from my (then) 13 year old who was struggling with acne to, 'Mom, I'm finally sleeping through the night,'" Michaelis says. "The game-changer was one of my sons was really spirited — a lot of big reactions, lots of screaming — and it was really draining on the family ... His moods evened out — night and day differences where he even noticed it. He told me he was finally in control of his emotions and could be his best self."

"The energy in our family changed," says Michaelis. "That one thing changed the game and I knew it was worth it."

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